The Palestinian Path to Peace Does Not Go Via Annapolis
World opinion is still on the side of the people of the occupied territories. But as long as they are divided, talks are futile
As the United States-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, approaches, the key question is what follows when it fails. Fiasco is looming, so what do the Palestinians do next? In their decades-long bid for justice, they have already tried everything.
The "armed struggle" of the 1970s, with its publicity-seeking aircraft hijackings, won global attention but no major concessions. The suicide bombings of the 1990s hardened Israeli attitudes and lost the Palestinian struggle much of its legitimacy. The Qassam rockets which continue to be fired from Gaza inflict damage and occasional death, but bring disproportionate retribution from the Israeli airforce.
Taking the political path has been only marginally more productive. When the Palestinian leadership in the 1980s made the historic compromise of accepting Israel's implantation on 78% of pre-1948 "mandate Palestine", they were rewarded with no equivalent Israeli recognition that Palestinians should control the remaining land.
There was a flicker of optimism in the dying months of the Clinton administration, when a peace deal was almost brokered between Yasser Arafat and the Ehud Barak government. Although it failed, the mood among most Israelis and Palestinians favoured a two-state solution. The line was: "Everyone knows what the outlines of a peace deal are. It just needs political decisions at the top." But Ariel Sharon's government put paid to that, and the Israeli definition of what constitutes a viable Palestinian state has continued to diminish.
Today no major party is willing to contemplate a reasonable concept of Palestinian independence. Instead, the ancient settlement project of Zionist dreams moves forward unabated, with the outrage of the ever-expanding wall and the annexation of east Jerusalem and its hinterland. According to the latest figures, Palestinians only control 54% of the West Bank. The rest has been taken by Israeli settlements. Meanwhile 570 closures - concrete blocks, mounds of earth and checkpoints - divide the remaining Palestinian land into mini-enclaves of anger and indignity.
Attempting to convince successive US administrations that pressure needs to be put on Israel has also not worked for the Palestinians. Even Bill Clinton confined himself to sweet-talking. He never wielded any muscle, let alone hinted at sanctions for Israel's serial non-compliance with UN resolutions.
To expect anything tougher from George Bush is futile. Indeed, it is hard to fathom what his people are up to by proposing the Annapolis meeting. The president shows no real energy or engagement on the issue, compared with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or even his father. Does he seriously think he can get an agreement, and have one foreign policy success after the disaster of Iraq? Even if Mahmoud Abbas were to sign a meaningful piece of paper at Annapolis, the Palestinian president lacks the moral or political authority of Arafat. He is more likely to be denounced than praised by most Palestinians.
Efforts to send a message to Washington and Israel through the ballot box have also yielded the Palestinians no benefits. When voters elected Hamas two years ago in the hope of showing the world their frustration, the Israeli and US response was first to punish them and then to try to split them by pampering the defeated Fatah movement diplomatically and giving it arms. Had Fatah been rewarded with substantial Israeli concessions on lifting roadblocks and releasing prisoners, undermining Hamas might have worked. The opposite has happened. If Abbas thinks he can win new elections on the basis of an Annapolis deal, he will be disappointed. Everything suggests Palestinian voters would give Hamas more support in the West Bank than they have already.
So what options do the Palestinians have? Could non-violent resistance on a mass scale make a difference, as it did in the intifada, which started 20 years ago next month? Mary King's new study, A Quiet Revolution, provides a timely reminder of what they achieved through courageous and disciplined mobilisation. A former activist of the US civil rights movement and now a professor of peace and conflict studies, she explains how Palestinians shook off the Israeli military occupation through a sustained campaign of boycotts and defiance. The template was South Africans' mass democratic movement against apartheid. Of course, like Pretoria, the Israeli government highlighted the occasional Molotov cocktails and sporadic stone-throwing to demonise the entire movement as violent, but the core of the protests was unarmed civil disobedience.
The first intifada was more impressive than the much-touted "colour revolutions" of recent years, or even of the east European uprisings of 1989, with the exception of Solidarity in Poland. It did not receive US or other foreign government funding. It was not an affair of a few days against a weak and divided regime. It required months of brave activity and the endurance of mass arrests and heavy repression from opponents like defence minister Yitzhak "break their bones" Rabin who, unlike the crumbling Communist elites of 1989 or the administrations of Milosevic, Shevardnadze, and Kuchma, had no compunction in repeatedly using force.
Palestinian success in getting the Israelis to abandon their military administration of the land seized in 1967 and accept the Oslo arrangements for Palestinian self-rule did not, alas, lead to peace or a final settlement. Most Palestinians now deride Oslo. But it was a victory, and a key stage in their struggle.
Should non-violent resistance be revived on a large scale? What would the focus be? Mass sit-ins at the major roadblocks with crowds pushing through? Marches to the sites where the wall is going up? Or should the target of popular protest first be the Palestinians' own elites? In recent months nothing has been more damaging to the Palestinian cause than the violence between Fatah and Hamas, egged on by the Israeli government, the Bush administration and a supine European Union.
The central requirement for any new Palestinian initiative is Palestinian unity. Don't let opponents divide you. Resist international flattery. Ignore the instinct for revenge. The jury of international public opinion is still on the side of the Palestinians' demand for justice. It may not have achieved as much as it could have, but it matters, and needs to be preserved.
Jonathan Steele is a Guardian columnist, roving foreign correspondent and author.
© 2007 The Guardian